Soul of the Palace

The court of Mahmudabad is long gone, but its royal cuisine lives on

Ariana Lindquist

Dignified and animated, my friend Sulaiman Khan, the raja of Mahmudabad, opens an Urdu dictionary and reads me the definition of masala: "things conducive to good; occupations; honor, glory; ingredients; spices; a border of a garment such as gold or silver lace." He could be describing the courtly culture of his ancestors, Arab nobility that ruled Mahmudabad, 35 miles from Lucknow, from the 16th century until 1947, when Sulaiman was a child. That's when Independence and the Partition of India and Pakistan changed the fate of the Muslim aristocracy, including the Khans. Although the court is long gone, some of its culture, especially its cuisine, lives on. Lavished with ghee and flavored with costly masalas, it is food that once displayed the wealth and generosity of the nobility.

Ariana Lindquist

That's when Independence and the Partition of India and Pakistan changed the fate of the Muslim aristocracy, including the Khans. Although the court is long gone, some of its culture, especially its cuisine, lives on. Lavished with ghee and flavored with costly masalas, it is food that once displayed the wealth and generosity of the nobility. At his deteriorating yet grand palace, Sulaiman still occasionally entertains. Today he has promised a banquet. For hours, his chef, Afzal Ahmad, cooks outside in a courtyard. He layers tender goat leg and whole chicken thickly with spices and scents them with flowery screw-pine essence. He fries bread until it's crisp, soaks it in saffron-infused cream, and tops it with shimmering silver leaf for shahi tukra, royal toast.

Ariana Lindquist

A sumptuous feast for a small gathering of guests, it is one of the ways that Sulaiman maintains his noble culture. As Ahmad tends wood fires, imbuing dishes with smoke, Sulaiman quotes lines from the 18th-century poet Mir Taqi Mir: “Where is the smoke originating from? Is it from the heart, or the soul?”